Advocates are as diverse as the issues and groups they represent. But there are some skills that every good advocate has in common — honesty, subject matter expertise, good judgment and communication skills. As someone who spent almost eight years as legal counsel for the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee – the largest non-budgetary committee at the State House – I want to share some advocacy tips:
1. Don’t show your disappointment when a staff member substitutes for the legislator. Even if you’ve confirmed that your meeting is going to be with the actual legislator the reality is that schedule changes happen. If the House or Senate is meeting in a formal session, your legislator may be on the floor voting or an issue may have arisen in the district. You also might actually be sitting down with the person – the staff member – who is the real expert in the office on your issue. Don’t make assumptions or dismiss the person you’re meeting with just because they are staff and not the legislator.
2. Be clear, concise and compelling, but most importantly be truthful and factually correct. A good advocate presents legislators with all sides of the issue and doesn’t try to sugarcoat one side over the other. Have a strategy for dealing with both allies and opponents and be ready to give your best argument in favor of the bill and your best rebuttal to an argument against your bill.
3. Tell your story. Explain how the proposed or pending legislation will affect you. It’s helpful to frame your needs in terms of the legislator’s community or constituency.
4. Develop credibility. Provide valuable information and build trust with members of the legislature and their staff, especially as it relates to your communications with them. Legislators aren’t swayed by one simple conversation and effective advocacy requires more than a good sales pitch. Your lawmaker is well aware that you are presenting one side, but major bills almost always have two sides to be considered. In the end, the lawmaker has to make up his or her own mind. That’s what they’re elected to do. They shouldn’t just switch their vote based on who gives them the best story at the time. A good lawmaker is going to look at both sides of the issue and see how it’s going to impact their constituents and the people of Massachusetts overall.
5. Repeat the process. This means becoming aware of what else is going on in the context of the larger legislative agenda. Is it budget season? Is the legislature only meeting in informal session right now? Do you know whether your bill requires a state appropriation in order to become law?
6. Have patience and understand timing. Timing requires learning the sometimes mysterious ways by which the legislature conducts business. It’s not enough to do all the right things; those things must be done at the right time and in the right sequence. Sit down with the chair of the committee overseeing your issue before you request a meeting with the Speaker or the Senate President. Trust me, the Speaker will ask if you’ve discussed this with his chairperson and a chairperson doesn’t want to be blindsided by a call from the Speaker on your issue if you’ve never taken the time to sit down with him or her.
7. Don’t play the name game. Unless you are absolutely positive that your next door neighbor’s sister is a mutual friend of the legislator don’t name drop. And, if you feel confident that you have a mutual friend, wait until after the meeting is over. Thank the legislator for his or her time and then mention the connection. A personal relationship isn’t going to influence the legislator. If the relationship is a stretch it’ll appear that you’re trying too hard.
8. Maintain relationships, but be ready to cultivate new ones. Things can change quickly. Legislators face re-election every two years in Massachusetts. Recently Senate President Therese Murray announced her new leadership team, including a new Majority Leader and a new Senate Chair of the Judiciary Committee, among others.
9. Don’t forget to make “the ask.” Advocacy is based on action. Once you’ve figured out your message and you’ve delivered it, make sure you ask your legislator for his or her support.
10. Say thank you. Lawmakers have to balance a lot of worthy and competing interests. While your issue is your first priority it may not be a top priority for your legislator. If your bill doesn’t pass the first time it’s filed in the legislature, be gracious and wait for the next opportunity. And if your legislator was helpful and did support your issue, remember that elected officials are like anyone else; they like to be thanked for their efforts.
– Kathleen Joyce
Director of Government Relations
Boston Bar Association